11/03/2011 - 16:16

Paths to a sustainable-energy future: realistic risks and options



Charles Forsberg paints a stark picture -- a kind of nuclear-energy-or-else stance -- of a world where, without nuclear energy, we can expect oil wars, unprecedented climate change, or unaffordable energy. Of course, oil wars could continue even if nuclear energy is widely deployed as long as countries do not wean their transportation and industrial sectors from oil. Similarly, climate change cannot be combated merely by fuel-switching. Many respected technical studies indicate that the greatest contribution to carbon dioxide emission reductions will come from greater efficiency. And nuclear energy, although it may be an economic choice for some countries, is not affordable for all.

More broadly, there may be true disagreement on the implications of moving away from nuclear energy to renewable resources. Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany are unlikely to view the risks of abandoning nuclear energy as tantamount to getting involved in oil wars, being overcome by climate change, or being unable to afford energy. There will be costs undoubtedly, and the world will watch closely as these countries chart a different energy path.

It is indisputable that there are many challenges to deploying renewable energy on a wide scale, just as there were challenges to deploying nuclear energy on a wide scale in the early years. "Affordable" nuclear energy was aided by turnkey, fixed-price contracts employed by General Electric and Westinghouse as they competed for overseas exports. If Korea Electric Power Corporation's contract with the United Arab Emirates is any indication, we may see reactor exports supported by state-sponsored financial incentives. The question is: Will countries see a similar benefit from investing in critical energy technologies (smart grids, storage, etc.) and exporting them on beneficial terms to the countries that need them most?

A roadmap for a sustainable energy future may well include nuclear energy as a component, but strategies need to weigh realistic risks.